Monday, October 15, 2012

Life, Death, and Litigation

The murmuring has become a cacophony. The trickle a tidal wave. The silent suffering a public crisis.

What was once a hidden secret, shrouded by machismo and shame, is now public. Former NFL players are dying, or sickened, because they played the game they loved.

Most weren't injured all at once. Not in a Darryl Stingley-Jack Tatum moment. But a little at a time. Tackle-by-tackle. Collision-by-collision.

The NFL is trying to address the problem. Banning hits on defenseless players. Prohibiting helmet-to-helmet contact. Commissioner Roger Goodell's recent public relations nightmare, the Saints' "bountygate" fiasco, did not occur because the NFL is somehow suddenly opposed to the violent collisions that were its hallmark. The NFL is worried about its players. And worried about getting sued.

Alex Karras, a Lion of my youth, a Lion of life, died last week. He suffered from kidney failure. But more tragically, he suffered from dementia caused, he contended, by repeated concussions incurred during the Golden Age of football in the 1950's and 1960's.

"The Mad Duck" was not the archetypal dumb jock. Far from it. He clashed with coaches he thought tyrannical, acted, was a sportscaster, and a businessman. He was also one of the greatest defensive linemen in the history of the NFL.

Alex Karras, near the end of his playing days.

But as Karras' health failed, he became part of a group of former NFL players who sued the league early this year, claiming a variety of health problems as a result of head injuries caused by the NFL's alleged failure to provide safe playing conditions.

I don't know enough about the medicine to know if Karras and his fellow plaintiffs have a legitimate case. I tend to think that the science and medicine regarding concussions and their long-term effect is recent and still evolving. And as a result, it may be difficult for the former players to prove that the NFL intentionally submitted them to unsafe conditions and repeated injury.

One thing I'm relatively certain of, however, is that the NFL's recent emphasis on avoiding injury, sitting players with concussions until medical clearance, and the suspension and fining of players who engage in what used to be acceptable conduct on the field (leading with the helmet, spearing, dumping quarterbacks and running backs on their heads after forward progress is stopped) is the result of concerns for player safety, and also for potential liability.

Roger Goodell is the CEO of a multi-billion dollar industry and understands that his job is to maximize and protect the owners' product and their wealth. While Karras and his co-plaintiffs may or may not pose a threat to that wealth, the current generation of players, 20 or 30 years down the road, almost certainly does given what we now know about concussions and their long term effect on the brain.

Every time some announcer or pundit or former player or even current player decries the "softening" of the game, they are longing for a day when life was simpler, when we knew not what we asked of the players. And they ignore both the science and the economic might of what professional football is today.

All of this is, of course, too late for The Mad Duck and his generation. But if the changes, however motivated, allow us to bask a little longer in the reflected light of today's stars in the future, or to delight in the multi-facetedness of a player who we just saw as a brute, then that makes us all a little richer. And a little less guilty for watching on Sunday afternoons.

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